FRANKFORT — Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin claimed Wednesday that gambling-related suicides are nightly occurrences as he criticized his political opponent's support for expanded gambling as a way to help fund the state's struggling public pension systems.
Bevin's remarks in which he linked suicides to casino gambling, without offering evidence, were ridiculed as "patently false and irresponsible" by a top American Gaming Association executive.
Casino gambling has emerged as one of many wedge issues separating the Republican governor and Andy Beshear, his Democratic challenger in this year's election.
Beshear, the state's attorney general, supports legalizing casino gambling as a new revenue source to help shore up chronically underfunded pensions. Bevin has consistently opposed allowing casino gambling and says the revenue wouldn't come close to fixing the pension woes. Kentucky has one of the worst-funded public pension systems in the country.
During a radio interview on WKDZ, the governor took his opposition a step further while discussing what he sees as the societal costs related to casino gambling.
"Every night somewhere in America, somebody takes their life in a casino because they've wasted the last semblance of dignity and hope that they had," Bevin said. "Families are ruined. Lives are ruined."
Beshear campaign spokesman Sam Newton referred to the governor's remarks as "erratic claims" offering "further proof he's unfit to lead."
Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, a trade group representing the $261 billion U.S. casino industry, defended the industry's efforts to combat compulsive gambling.
"Governor Bevin's comments this morning about the casino gaming industry were patently false and irresponsible," he said in a statement. "Our industry commits hundreds of millions of dollars a year to address the very serious issue of problem gambling, ensuring that patrons have the tools they need to engage in our offerings in a responsible manner."
Bevin said during the radio interview that there's no "political appetite" for legalizing casino gambling in Kentucky.
For years, expanded gambling proposals died in Kentucky's legislature despite the state's revenue needs — even when Beshear's father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, took the lead in pushing the proposals. This year, a proposal to legalize sports betting in Kentucky also failed in the GOP-dominated legislature. Andy Beshear also supports making sports betting legal.
Andy Beshear estimates the state could reap up to $500 million a year by legalizing expanded gambling, saying that money now flows to other states where Kentuckians gamble at casinos.
He wants to put all the expanded gambling revenue into the pension systems. He says that would free up other state funds for education and health care.
Bevin said casino gambling revenue would come at a cost to gamblers and their families, adding: "That means billions are being spent that may well be better spent somewhere else."